Commentary Magazine


Topic: NSA Metadadata mining

Spying on Americans, Then and Now

John and Bonnie Raines are America’s newest libertarian heroes. The pair earned this distinction nearly 43 years ago, when, along with several accomplices, they broke into an F.B.I. regional office in Media, Pennsylvania and made off with a massive haul of confidential files that turned out to be proof of a secret program that authorized spying on anti-Vietnam War protesters. Baffled authorities never solved the theft and the group leaked enough of the documents to the press to help set in motion a backlash against the intelligence community that ultimately brought an end to such practices. As such, the burglars—who dubbed themselves the Citizen’s Commission to Investigate the F.B.I.—can claim to have had a real impact on government policy. Even more to the point, they seem to think they set a precedent for future whistle-blowers like Edward Snowden who made off to Russia with a far bigger treasure trove of secrets about the activities of the National Security Agency.

The Raines couple as well as the other members of their circle have now come forward after keeping quiet for so long as part of the publicity campaign surrounding a book about their exploits by former Washington Post reporter Betty Medsger that generated a front-page feature in today’s New York Times as well as a number of television interviews. It’s quite a tale and one that summons up a bygone era of abuses when F.B.I. Director J. Edgar Hoover was a power unto himself with virtually no accountability to Congress or the presidents who came and went while he lingered in office for five decades. But before we attempt to use this case to justify Snowden or to lionize the F.B.I. burglars, it’s important to understand both the context of the government’s concerns about peace protesters as well as to draw a distinction between what they did and the contemporary movement to hamstring the NSA.

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John and Bonnie Raines are America’s newest libertarian heroes. The pair earned this distinction nearly 43 years ago, when, along with several accomplices, they broke into an F.B.I. regional office in Media, Pennsylvania and made off with a massive haul of confidential files that turned out to be proof of a secret program that authorized spying on anti-Vietnam War protesters. Baffled authorities never solved the theft and the group leaked enough of the documents to the press to help set in motion a backlash against the intelligence community that ultimately brought an end to such practices. As such, the burglars—who dubbed themselves the Citizen’s Commission to Investigate the F.B.I.—can claim to have had a real impact on government policy. Even more to the point, they seem to think they set a precedent for future whistle-blowers like Edward Snowden who made off to Russia with a far bigger treasure trove of secrets about the activities of the National Security Agency.

The Raines couple as well as the other members of their circle have now come forward after keeping quiet for so long as part of the publicity campaign surrounding a book about their exploits by former Washington Post reporter Betty Medsger that generated a front-page feature in today’s New York Times as well as a number of television interviews. It’s quite a tale and one that summons up a bygone era of abuses when F.B.I. Director J. Edgar Hoover was a power unto himself with virtually no accountability to Congress or the presidents who came and went while he lingered in office for five decades. But before we attempt to use this case to justify Snowden or to lionize the F.B.I. burglars, it’s important to understand both the context of the government’s concerns about peace protesters as well as to draw a distinction between what they did and the contemporary movement to hamstring the NSA.

There can be no defense for Hoover’s decision to unleash the secret “Cointelpro” program—a term discovered in the burglars’ cache of documents but not revealed as the code name for a domestic spying and dirty tricks agenda pursued by Hoover until the 1980s—that ran amok from the 1950s to the 1970s.  The effort involved work by agents provocateurs and other operatives not only to monitor leftist radicals, Communists, and civil-rights groups, but also attempts to disrupt their activities and even, in the case of Martin Luther King Jr., to blackmail him about extramarital affairs that were discovered in the course of F.B.I. spying.

Almost all of it was done without proper authorization from political authorities or the courts and, needless to say, must be characterized as an unconstitutional invasion of privacy as well as an illegal abuse of authority. As such, the revelations about the F.B.I.’s activity led to necessary reforms that put an end to this unconstitutional mayhem.

But it should also be noted that any self-righteous posturing on the part of the burglars or their contemporary fans must be tempered by the knowledge that while Hoover’s behavior was outrageous, not all anti-war activity in the late 1960s and early 1970s was blameless. This was an era in which a small portion of the anti-war movement had morphed into a violent terrorist group known as the Weather Underground that committed a number of robberies, bombings, and murders to pursue their aims. That was also true of the Black Panthers, a murderous gang of thugs who were able to persuade a large number of naïve liberals to buy into their masquerade as civil-rights activists.

Just as the existence of a small cadre of real-life Communist spies in Washington and elsewhere in this country didn’t justify the blacklisting of every radical during the McCarthy era, neither the Weather Underground, the Black Panthers, nor other such criminal enterprises can excuse everything that was done in the name of Cointelpro.

That is where we are being urged by libertarian and leftist government critics to make the link between these ’70s peaceniks and Snowden. Like Snowden, they still assert their illegal breaking and entering as well as theft of classified government documents was necessary because without them, the country would not have known what Hoover was up to. But even if we take the defense of their activity at face value—a position that is undermined by doubts about whether they were more interested in defending ordinary peace protesters or a desire to have the government back off on efforts to deal with genuinely dangerous radicals—there is a huge difference between the 1971 burglary and what Snowden has done.

After all, for good or for ill, everything in the stolen F.B.I. files related to domestic surveillance that could probably not be presented in court as part of a legal investigation. Even much of the monitoring of real criminals operating under the rubric of war-protesters was legally murky or at least had probably not been properly vetted by the courts, the Justice Department, or Congress.

But none of that can be said about the vast trove of intelligence files stolen by Snowden. While the courts will have the final say about the NSA metadata mining (one lower federal court has ruled it was illegal, another, rightly in my view, said it was not), the FISA court had authorized the activity, as had congressional oversight committees and the highest political authorities in the land.

Even more to the point, had Snowden only leaked files about domestic operations by the NSA he might have merited at least a superficial comparison to the burglars of 1971. But instead what he released was a vast body of intelligence, most of which related to America’s efforts to deal with foreign threats and other routine spying on targets abroad. What he sought to do was to effectively eviscerate any intelligence work by the U.S. government, something that not only endangered agents in the field but could potentially render America helpless to defend itself against future 9/11-style attacks. Any comparison between that kind of broad-based attack on a vital government function and Hoover’s over-reach is absurd. So, too, is the notion that Snowden is a whistle-blower who deserves to be honored or at least pardoned. The F.B.I. burglars may not be quite the heroes that they are now making themselves out to be, but the long-term impact of their actions should not be treated as a precedent for a genuine rogue like Snowden.

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